by Armstrong, John
Publisher:Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000
The idea of having a favorite picture brings into view the fact, generally kept quiet in the discussion of masterpieces, that we are sometimes tempted to speak of works of art in terms usually reserved for relations with people -- the language of affection. To speak in these warm terms about a painting or building is to propose a high privilege for art: like certain people, art can enter importantly into our lives.
To ask a picture "How much do you cost?" or "When were you painted?" or "Who commissioned you?" is to seek answers that might ultimately be important; but like enquiry into a person's age or income, they might not be the best place to start. We fire off the major questions, but our initial concern ("Who are you, really?") remains frustrated, even as we accumulate our dossier of apparently big facts.
If we let them, associations come in gangs and each is the spring to yet others. Reverie is the state of giving ourselves up to the flow of associations. This state of letting something happen -- a species of relaxation -- is one we need to cultivate in looking at paintings or buildings. If we go to them demanding that something special happen, we end up in the lamentable condition of the insomniac who can't steep precisely because he keeps telling himself -- with mounting panic -- that he must fall asleep.
How many of us have stood before a famous painting only to realize that we can't see what the fuss is about? Why is it that we'd rather watch a sketch artist at work in the Louvre than look at the masterpiece she is copying; that we can spend a whole weekend reading a gripping novel but become anxious when our companion lingers in front of a masterpiece for more than thirty seconds? What should we do when Walton's Autumn Sunshine leaves us humming the theme from The Waltons?
John Armstrong, a young connoisseur and philosopher of art, has thought hard about the questions that bedevil viewers still seeking the feeling of intimacy with great works of art. There are, of course, many books about ways of looking and seeing; but in a powerful and original shift of focus, Armstrong considers the personal roots of our engagement with art -- the private, unacknowledged ways we actually see, feel, think, brood, and daydream as we stand before the work itself.
Armstrong is interested in the ways we grow attached to individual pieces of art, and in how they come to matter to us. He points out that regardless of how crowded the museum is or how much we know about art history, ultimately we are each of us alone with the work of art, with nothing to go on but our own responses. Yet there are many aids at hand: our natural powers of affection, analysis, memory, reverie, and contemplation.
Through lively, succinct treatments of some three dozen works -- a church in Rome, a wood-block print by Holbein, a row of Gothic arches, a Dutch master's depiction of a Delft courtyard -- Armstrong describes the resources we can cultivate in order to "move closer" to painting and architecture. Moving gracefully between the intimacies of personal experience and lucid philosophical reflection, he is an uncommonly sensitive and persuasive guide.
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